I had the great privilege of spending some time with the late Harris Savides, ASC, years ago at Camerimage, when he came to present American Gangster, the film he shot for Ridley Scott.
I share here part of our lengthy, impromptu audio interview in 2007 in the Camerimage café in Lodz.
Harris left us way too soon in 2012, at the age of 55.
Harris was a pure artist, and a gentle bear of a man, intelligent, considerate and humble. He was universally admired by his peers, and sought out by top filmmakers including Gus van Sant, David Fincher, Ridley Scott and Sofia Coppola.
Harris’ feature credits include:
-- 1999 The Yards by James Gray
-- 2004 Birth by Jonathan Glazer
-- 2007 Zodiac by David Fincher
-- 2010 Somewhere by Sofia Coppola
Harris also lit notable music videos for Madonna and REM.
For me Harris' greatest work is the so-called Death trilogy with director Gus van Sant:
-- 2002 Gerry
-- 2003 Elephant
-- 2005 Last Days
shoot soft, print hard
At Camerimage, I started by speaking with Harris about his approach to contrast.
He illustrated his approach of "shoot soft, print hard" with examples from still photography printing and two films that he shot in 35mm: American Gangster and Elephant. The idea is to have low contrast in the original image, in order to control contrast better in post.
Control of contrast may well be the most important aspect of cinematography. Although Harris gives examples from film, his lessons apply to all image-making.
Harris also argues that film and digital give an "unnatural" contrast to images, that does not match our perception.
watch on YouTube
Notes about film words:
Harris mentions an enlarger, which is what still photographers use to project a negative image on to light-sensitive printing paper in the darkroom.
He then refers to two custom 35mm laboratory processes by Technicolor: ENR and Oz, which are similar methods for increasing the contrast of motion picture film by adding silver via an additional bath of chemicals.
When Harris says he "pulled" the film, he refers to under-developing the negative at the lab by spending less time in the developer bath. This is the opposite of "pushing", and yields a softer, less contrasted image.
He also refers to Vision Premier, a Kodak print film stock that offered strong contrast and saturation.
thefilmbook: Interview with Harris Savides - About Contrast
thefilmbook: Harris Savides 1957 - 2012
diyphotography.net: The Cinematography of Harris Savides
wikipedia: Harris Savides
YouTube: trailer for Elephant by Gus van Sant
YouTube: trailer for American Gangster by Ridley Scott
theasc.com: Soup du Jour about ENR and silver retention
cinematography.com: Kodak 5263